The Clovehitch Killer: Is Don Burnside Based on a Real Serial Killer?

‘The Clovehitch Killer’ follows teen Tyler Burnside, who lives in a small Kentucky town that was terrorized by a serial killer responsible for the disappearance of 10 female victims. Known as the Clovehitch killer after his favorite knot, his activities stopped a decade ago. Tyler’s father, Don Burnside, is a family man, community leader, and Boy Scouts troop leader. Upon finding pictures of the missing women at his home, Tyler begins to suspect that his father is the Clovehitch Killer. Teaming up with Kassi, an outcast teen whose mother was a victim of the Clovehitch Killer, Tyler investigates his father and discovers unsettling truths.

Directed by Duncan Skiles, the film paints a very unnerving picture of a monster hiding in plain sight. Actor Dylan McDermott carries out a nuanced portrayal of Don Burnside, brilliantly depicting both his seemingly ideal nature as a family man and the dark urges he fails to control. The extensive details of sadistic sexual fantasies and fetishes of a serial killer hidden behind a seemingly ordinary family man call into question whether such a person has existed in real life.

Don Burnside is Based on the BTK Killer

Don Burnside, or the Clovehitch Killer, is based on the real-life BTK killer Dennis Rader, who killed at least 10 people between 1974 and 1991. He was active in Wichita and Park City, Kansas, and has several parallels that can be drawn between him and Don Burnside in ‘The Clovehitch Killer.’ Dennis Rader had the perfect cover as a psychopath. He was seen as a devout Christian, a perfect family man with a wife and two children, and a respected member of the community.

He had experience in various jobs as a handyman and also served as a scout leader and the president of his church’s council. Given the description, one can see the similarities between the fictional Don Burnside and the very real Dennis Rader, which are by design. Skiles extensively studied Rader while preparing for the film, and screenwriter Christopher Ford included multiple references to him in the script.

Dennis Rader began killing in 1974, and most of his victims were women. He grew arrogant and began to taunt the police by leaving signatures on the crime scene. He also sent letters to the media and described the killings in gruesome detail. Rader named himself the BTK killer after his methodology of bind, torture, and kill. He would stalk his targets, making a plan before breaking into their homes or abducting them. Rader allegedly harbored sadistic sexual fantasies of trapping and binding helpless women, keeping some of their belongings and pictures as trophies. He was also believed to have fetishes of autoerotic asphyxiation using rope, cross-dressing, and voyeurism.

Rader would have cooling-off periods between his killings and, for a time, went as long as a decade without murder. During the periods, he would re-enact his fantasies while wearing women’s clothes and a mask, binding himself, and taking pictures of himself as he pretended to be his victims. In the early 2000s, with the serial killer fading from public memory, Rader grew hungry for attention. He sent a floppy disk to a media house that contained metadata revealing the words Christ Lutheran Church and: modified by Dennis. These clues narrowed the search down to Rader. After a pap smear was taken from his daughter, DNA and circumstantial evidence were enough to arrest the killer.

Rader’s family and community were shocked to learn of his killings. During the trial, he initially refused to speak but eventually pled guilty to the 10 murders, describing them in great detail but refusing to furbish any apologies. He later apologized in a 30-minute monologue, which experts pointed to as an example of psychopaths lacking the emotional content for speech. IN 2005, Kansas had no death penalty, and therefore, Rader received 10 consecutive life sentences, which totaled a minimum of 175 years in jail.

Don Burnside is very closely modeled after the BTK Killer as a psychopath who very effectively hides his true nature in plain sight. Their similarities run deep, from their status as respected family men, dark fetishes, frequency of murders, methodology, and unapologetic behavior. While there are a few key differences between the two, the writer and director of ‘The Clovehitch Killer’ referred to Dennis Rader while creating the character of Don Burnside. And with a stellar performance from McDermott, they produced a chilling depiction of the BTK killer taking on the form of Don Burnside.

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